The cure for boredom is curiosity

The first question our strategy interns will ask when they start here will almost always be: “what makes a good strategist?”. There are many answers to give to this question but I will only give one: be curious. I am convinced that this is the first and most important quality a good strategist must have, that’s where it starts.

Mel Exon (BBH Labs) once wrote a post comparing a good journalist with a strategist, pointing out the 3 characteristics both should have:

  1. A relish or hunger to find out new intelligence
  2. The intellectual ability to see patterns in that data; see the big picture and understand the facts
  3. An ability to write beautifully

I like the way Mel defined curiosity. An so did Ian Fitzpatrick, who built further on the importance of it:

“What I’d impart to you is the significance of the second trait: a relish or hunger to find out new intelligence. To achieve this trait — and I think it’s something you have to work at (or at least I do) — you will necessarily adopt an interested posture. We can, and must, build practices of curiosity.

To practice curiosity is to, necessarily, seek out the messy (and occasionally amorphous) perspectives of others. To be great at planning, or I’d posit at any pursuit charged with shaping things for people, requires both that we embrace and develop a profound respect for people who are not like us.

Please don’t forget that people are messy. It’s what makes us (including you) interesting, and what makes it incredibly difficult to design one-size-fits-all solutions (or communications).”

So go out and be curious. Seek out the messy. Find new grounds to explore. Always keep asking questions. Every answer should lead to a new question. That’s what makes it all interesting, that’s how you get to new and fresh ideas.

Or as Dorothy Parker said:

“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.”

What strategists could learn from standup comedy

A while ago 4 of the best comedians of all time met and talked about their profession, sharing a whole bunch of insites that are valuable for all of us. It’s impressive to see and hear how much preparation goes into a good standup comedy show and that it’s not because they make it look like they’re inventing the jokes on stage that they haven’t prepared it in the tiniest detail. Here’s what I believe strategists could learn from Louis CK, Ricky Gervais, Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock.

Find the unique human insights. Those things that we all recognise but that are often remain unsaid. When talking about how all 4 comedians find their jokes, they all make a reference to 2 very interesting things. First of all they don’t like ‘easy’ jokes. If you or I could have come up with the joke as well it’s probably not good enough. I like that. Secondly, while searching for their unique form of comedy they often get to human behavior that most of us recognize but don’t often talk about. At Duval Guillaume we search for what we call the ‘provocative insight’, those insights that are recognizable but often left unsaid. It’s there that we find a territory that will help us search for those creative ideas that will get people to talk about brands.

Keep a notebook with you all time, write down every little idea or piece of information, quote, … that you think has something of interest even if you don’t know what exactly what that something is when you write it down. Most comedians also develop their shows based on things they’ve read, heard, got annoyed by, … which eventually mixes up into a gread night out for all of us. Often in developing a good creative strategy it is about connecting the dots, it’s about making the connection between a piece of research, an article you’ve read somewhere, a drawing on the white board from another meeting, … Whether it’s a paper notebook or something else (I almost religiously chose for Evernote) write down everything that you thing sounds interesting when you hear it. You’ll find out later whether there is a use for it or not.

Talk about your ideas frequently with other people, also outside of the strategic department, also outside of the agency. By telling the idea you’ll find thing that don’t really sound right or still aren’t perfect match with your idea. And by the feedback, questions you’ll get you will refine your thoughts. Comedians will often try out their jokes (or partial jokes) on their friends, not only to see if they respond but ultimately to help develop the jokes. Jokes become better by sharing. It’s not that people will have to say whether they like the joke or not, it’s to see how they react so you can use that learning finetuning the joke. Same goes for strategy.

Deconstruct things / issues to the smallest little detail. While listening to Louis CK, Ricky Gervais, Jerry Seinfeld & Chris Rock I learned that they go to extreme lengths to tweak each joke in their show to the finest details. They say that it’s often the little things that make the greatest differences. The specific choice of words, the facial expressions, the posture on stage, … every little thing is tweaked to make sure it works perfectly. A strategy should be developed in the same way. It’s important the general vision of direction is the right one, but it are the little details that make it really come to life. Very often those little things are even more inspiring to creatives than the overarching thinking.

Know who you’re talking to and tweak your idea along the way. Even when you’ve done everything to prepare yourself, made sure that it will work every show is different, every audience is different. It’s a different city, another vibe, … but it’s important for comedians to ‘feel’ the room they’re performing in and add little tweaks to the show while they’re doing it. So apart from the obvious ‘hello city x’ which is different every time there will be more things that will need to be different every show. Of course when you’re a skilled comedian, it’s still you on stage so you can be agile throughout the show. Strategists need to apply that same agility. The strategy might look good on paper, allow it to evolve throughout the process. Maybe it’s the client that added a thought worth including or the creatives find ideas that will influence the strategy. None of that is bad as long as you focus on what the end result is so let it happen, tweak along the way.

Put the hours in. But that’s what you have to do in any job that you want to be successful in. Put the hours in, there’s no such thing as a free ride. I’ve blogged about this before and when you watch the video you’ll see that it’s a common element of success for all 4 comedians, they are all – still today – working very hard.

Watch the full ‘Talking Funny’ video to see for yourself how those 4 talented comedians look at their work:

Social Media Forum: Social Currency

Yesterday I did a talk at the Social Media Forum 2011 in Brussels. It’s a topic that I’m interested in since 2006 or so, the time Hugh MacLeod started talking about “social objects”. You’ll find out why when you keep on reading.

I started the presentation with a quote from Mark Twain I had found only a day earlier:

“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you find out why” (Mark Twain)

The reason for that was mainly that as usual in social media related conferences (or actually on many of the stuff that is written about it online as well) is around tactics, hardly ever about the reason why. One of the other speakers asked a question about whether you need to be active on social media or building your own web presence, I think he used the reference ‘fish where the fish are’ to reference social media. To stay in that analogy that is like saying you should either ‘fish where the fish are’ versus ‘making sure your fridge is at the best possible temperature’. In that idea the tactics we’re all focusing in so much is just the same as thinking about tricks to get the fish to hop in the fridge themselves… that’s a silly idea isn’t it?

Enough about fish already. When I think about Social Currency, I can only think of it as the most interesting thing possible in social. What do other have to say about it though? That’s what you can see on the first few slides. A lot of explanation etc, and I can only think NOPE (thank you Chuck Testa). Why do I think it’s more than that? There are 2 cases I used to prove my point.

First one: The Blue Monster. You can read about that on my blog as I’ve written about it several times before, it is that what I believe made Hugh start to talk about ‘social objects’. Explaining what it meant for him. He called it the hard currency of the internet:

“The interesting thing about the Social Object is the not the object itself, but the conversations that happen around them. The Blue Monster is a good example of this. It’s not the cartoon that’s interesting, it’s the conversations that happen around it that’s interesting.”

It was the Blue Monster that gave me, Steve and many other Microsoft colleagues a way into the tech community to talk about Microsoft and how we (as employees) were convinced something was changing on the inside. Only because people didn’t understand why we used the cartoon ourselves. The question to explain that created that window of opportunity.

A more recent example, the second one I used in my talk was the “Bikers” viral we made for Carlsberg 2-3 months ago. I haven’t talked about that video on my blog before, yet there’s a chance you have seen it – as did about 13 million people since launch. You have to see it first before I can further explain:


Apart from thinking it’s funny, what was the first idea on your mind? There’s a good chance it  was something in the lines of ‘would I have done that?’. Carlsberg launched their new baseline recently: That calls for a Carlsberg. And with that also a new proposition. It’s about a ‘reward for a daily act of courage’. And this was our (first) answer to that. Notice that you didn’t just talk about it, you probably discussed about it. It’s almost a social experiment.

That’s what Social Currency is about, a way to create value. That’s also why I think it’s a better word than object. And, it’s not just about talk value, but about discussion value. Make stuff worth discussing. If you keen on doing this, you build Social Capital. And that’s fundamentally much more interesting than learning about a few (ever changing) tactics first.

Hope you like that, feel free to comment. You can find the (small) presentation up on Slideshare:

Stratégies Gagnantes: Agile Planning

About a week ago I did a presentation at an event in Charleroi called “Stratégies Gagnantes” (which means as much as ‘Winning Strategies’) together with other speakers such as Michael Cawly (COO Ryanair), Nathalie Klein (Director Consumer Insights Coca-Cola), …I was asked to present about what I thought would contribute most towards winning strategies from a marketing point of view. This based on my experience in digital and specifically as Head of Digital at Duval Guillaume Modem, the agency I work for in Antwerp.

The topic I chose to talk about was ‘agile’, more specifically ‘agile planning’. We all know by now the world is changing, and it’s changing fast. So I didn’t want to go in to much about that, but instead focus on how we need to rethink the way we plan to cope with a situation that is always ‘in motion’. It was an easy choice to make since I’ve been fascinated about agile and about how we should use this thinking (that originates from the agile software development) into our business, into the way we think about planning for the future. Neil Perkin has written quite a few good posts about ‘agile thinking’ as key for anybody who wants to be more future proof. I’ve used some of his thoughts in this presentation.

In the presentation bring forward 4 ideas that need to be considered when thinking about introducing agile planning to your organisation:

  1. Ideas from anywhere: get out of the organization silos – idea generation happens best when people across all business lines get together
  2. Plan for the unknown: imagine what would be possible instead of solely relying on what you can deduct from past experience
  3. Measure to improve: instead of measure to report – make sure you get the learnings when you can still adapt
  4. Budget for change: make sure there’s time and money to make the change happen

Let me know what you think.

The problem of the internal story

Yesterday Edelman organized a breakfast event together with The Centre for which they had Steve Rubel as guest speaker as well as Patrick Bosteels and Ramon Suarez as specialists at the table for further discussion. Steve’s presentation was interesting (as usual), there’s a good write up about it on Steve’s Posterous.

What struck me most however during the discussion afterwards is how all businesses are struggling with social media, in particular how they were struggling to make it work on an organizational level. A recurring problem that I’ve also noticed plenty of times with some of our own clients. What happens today is that many in the communications department have discovered social media and wish to make use of it. Be it thanks to agency advice, because of their own interest, due to pressure from above, … whatever the reason you see there’s an ask for building solid presence on social media.

In many cases this presence will include telling real stories from real people inside the company, no better way to show authenticity right? And that’s where lies the problem in my opinion. The communication department sees the opportunity of becoming more social, realizes that it cannot do it by themselves for 2 reasons:

  1. It involves the whole company, or at least most departments in the company. Make social media 1% of 100 people’s job instead of 100% of 1 man’s job – dixit Steve.
  2. The real stories are not with the communication department, they are with the people building the products, selling the services, meeting the clients, …

And although they are interlinked, I believe that most of what we’re trying to do today is trying to fix the first problem. I do believe the challenge with the second problem is bigger though, it’s more difficult to tackle.

Steve talked about the necessity to look at what motivates people in the organization to get them involved. Is it money, internal recognition, reviews, … Which button to push to get people to participate. I think that’s very true, but wonder if it can help with that second challenge. I’ve experienced with some small to very large enterprises that and the gap between the comms department who recognized the opportunity and realizes there’s plenty of content within company to be used to actually surfacing that content in a way that is sustainable is too big to overcome.

So how do you overcome that gap? How do you surface the internal stories that matter to your company? What’s your take?

Good is the enemy of great

‘Kun det bedste er godt nok’ (‘Only the best is good enough’) is the LEGO company motto.

“Since its first interlocking brick was launched in 1949 it has become more popular than any toy in history. Every second, seven new boxes of Lego are sold; for every person in the world, there are 62 Lego pieces; Lego people – mini-figures, as they’re known – outnumber real people. You’d think it would be impossible to to go wrong with a brand as beloved as that.”

Yet five years ago, they almost went bankrupt.

LEGO

“The problem lay not with the product, but with the company’s attempts in the Nineties to make itself more modern and relevant in the age of video games. It had attempted to broaden its appeal to the young female market; it had tried to become a lifestyle brand with its own lines of clothes and watches; it had built more theme parks. But in doing so it had neglected its core business.”

This is a fascinating story of a company that reinvented itself by going back to the core. With some incredible pictures from the inside, great stuff.

Consumers don’t care about strategy

I don’t think there’s another product in tech that is ridiculed as much as Microsoft Bob. Never heard of it? That’s probably for a reason. Kudos to Monica Harrington for ‘confessing’ that she used to work on Bob and for writing a blogpost about it on Todd Bishop’s Microsoft blog. The product might have been a failure, the lessons learned are absolutely worth for everyone to read. Here’s one that stood out for me:

Consumers don’t care about strategy. Corporate customers do because if they’re investing big dollars over many years in a product, they want to know that it will continue to evolve in ways that are beneficial to the organization. In the corporate market, selling a vision is huge. By contrast, selling a vision to consumers is pointless. The key question they want answered is, "Does it make my life better today?"

It reminded me of how we always try to translate what lives in the ‘Meeting Room’ to something that can work in the ‘Living Room’ for all our clients. Make sure you read Monica’s full post, it’s worth it.